Generally speaking, being in first place on Memorial Day is a good sign of things to come. Memorial Day typically marks the one-third mark for the Major League Baseball season, and by this point you have a pretty good idea of which teams are going to be in the running and which teams are dead and buried.
For instance, it’s fairly common knowledge on May 29 that the Royals aren’t going to be challenging for the AL Central crown at 11-37, 22 1/2 games behind the 35-16 Tigers. Of course, we probably knew that the Royals wouldn’t be contenders entering the season anyway, but now we’re certain of it.
At the same time, there aren’t many people outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth region who expected the Rangers to be in first place come Memorial Day, and I’d be willing to bet that even some of the more loyal Rangers fans would have to be honest with themselves before claiming that they saw it coming.
How good of an indicator of future success is being in first place on Memorial Day? Since 1990 (excluding the strike year of 1994), the 82 division leaders on the last Monday in May have gone on to hold their leads and win their divisions 47 times. That’s a 57% rate.
In 2005, the Marlins, Cardinals, Padres, Orioles, White Sox and Rangers were leading their divisions on Memorial Day. At the end of the year, the Cards, Padres and White Sox held on. while the Braves, Red Sox and Angels rallied up to win theirs.
Three of the six teams leading on Memorial Day in 2004 ended up carrying their divisions at the end of the year as well. Only once since 1990 have all six teams ahead on Memorial Day won their division; that was in 1998, when the Braves, Astros, Padres, Yankees, Indians and Rangers pulled it off. The fewest teams to manage the feat since realignment in 1995 was two, occurring in 1995 and in 2001.
So while a Memorial Day lead is a fairly good indicator, it’s far from a guarantee. Just ask the 2005 Baltimore Orioles, the 2004 Cincinnati Reds or the 2001 Philadelphia Phillies (three teams to suffer huge dropoffs from Memorial Day through the end of their respective seasons).
As of May 29th this season, the Red Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Mets, Cardinals and Diamondbacks are leading the way. According to the trends of the past 15 full seasons, about half of those teams will end up holding on to win their divisions.
I expect the Tigers, Cardinals and Diamondbacks to hold on their leads.
Though the Tigers only have a two-game lead in the AL Central on the defending World Series champion White Sox, their team is built to hold onto that lead. Detroit’s pitching has been superlative, and the Tigers may have a rotation that’s more solid up and down than the White Sox. The Tigers lead MLB with a 3.36 ERA, with the White Sox a distant sixth at 4.13. The Detroit rotation has compiled a 3.39 ERA thus far, led by Justin Verlander’s 2.55 ERA and 7-3 record. Nate Robertson is enjoying a breakout year with a 5-2 mark and a 3.02 ERA. Former 20-game loser Mike Maroth is faring much better in 2006 with a 5-2 record and a 3.56 ERA. Kenny Rogers is 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA. Jeremy Bonderman rounds out the young rotation (other than Rogers), going 5-4 thus far with a 4.61 ERA. In the bullpen, Todd Jones has shown he remains the solid closer he proved to be in Florida last season, saving 16 games with a 3.12 ERA. Joel Zumaya is proving to be the closer of the future, putting up a 3.22 ERA and averaging 10.88 strikeouts per nine innings. It’s safe to assume, based on track record, that the Tigers may be pitching over their heads. The league average for team ERA is hovering around 4.50, meaning that Detroit has pitched a run better than the rest of the league. That’s a historically dominating team pitching performance.
While it’s safe to assume that the pitching will drop off slightly, it’s also reasonable to assume that Detroit’s hitting should pick up. The Tigers are currently 12th in baseball in runs scored, seventh in team batting average and eighth in team OPS. Not shabby by any means, but the team is getting next to nothing out of injured Dmitri Young, a .217 batting average from Brandon Inge, a .254 average from Craig Monroe and just three homers from Ivan Rodriguez. Chris Shelton has cooled off slightly, but that has coincided with the resurgence of Magglio Ordonez. Thus the potential is there for the lineup to be even better.
In the NL Central, no team ison the same level as the Cardinals (unless Houston gets Roger Clemens back). The Cards are second in baseball and tops in the NL with a 3.81 team ERA. The Reds, who trail the Cardinals by four games, are way back in 12th in team ERA at 4.44. St. Louis also is tops in the NL Central in runs scored, batting average and team OPS. Oh, and some guy named Pujols is destroying nearly every baseball thrown to him. The Reds are close, but they can’t make up that gap with the pitching being so inferior compared to the Cardinals’ rotation. Chris Carpenter is on the DL, which hurts, but the Cardinals’ rotation is one of the deepest around with Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Sidney Ponson and Jason Marquis. In the bullpen, St. Louis is led by Jason Isringhausen and his 16 saves. Adam Wainwright, Josh Hancock, Brad Thompson, Randy Flores and Braden Looper round out a pen that hasn’t skipped a beat despite returning just one pitcher from 2005 (Isringhausen). The Reds may wind up holding on to second place in the NL Central, but they’re not going to unseat the Cards.
The Diamondbacks, meanwhile,are a better team than given credit for, and they have the fortune of playing in a weak NL West. The division has played better this season than in 2005, when the 82-80 Padres made the playoffs. This season, all five teams were sporting records at least at .500 entering Memorial Day. That won’t last, as Colorado will surely finish below .500, as will either San Diego or San Francisco. The team best able to give Arizona a run for its money is the Dodgers, and they’re a shaky bet with the injury risks that dot their lineup.
Arizona is a surprisingly balanced team, sitting in seventh place overall with a team ERA of 4.15 and eighth overall with 262 runs scored. The starters have posted a 4.35 ERA, led by Brandon Webb and his 8-0 record and 2.18 ERA. Webb is one of the better pitchers in baseball thus far, and his control so far has been remarkable (walking nine batters in 82.2 innings). Miguel Batista is 4-2 with a 4.60 ERA and has also been pitching well. Claudio Vargas, Juan Cruz and Russ Ortiz round out the rotation and may be question marks, but Arizona has enough minor league depth to swing a trade for a Barry Zito or a Dontrelle Willis to augment a playoff run (unfortunately for them, the Dodgers have that ability as well). The Diamondbacks’ 3.79 bullpen ERA has been a pleasant surprise, though they need more consistency from appointed closer Jose Valverde. He has saved 14 games thus far, but his 5.03 ERA isn’t going to get it done down the stretch.
At the plate, the Diamondbacks aren’t going to kill you with the long ball, but they have a solid lineup. Chad Tracy is building on his superb 2005 with eight homers, a .292 average and a .849 OPS so far. Eric Byrnes may wind up the 2006 comeback player of the year and appears to have found a home in the desert. Byrnes went from Oakland to Colorado to Baltimore in 2005, but in 2006 he’s not going anywhere while hitting .322 with six homers and a .938 OPS. Top prospect Conor Jackson is proving that he can live up to the expectations as he’s hitting .297 with five homers and a .861 OPS. Shawn Green and Luis Gonzalez are having their usually solid seasons as well. Arizona alsoplays solid defense. However,it’s not going to be easy for the Snakes to hold off the Dodgers (who are outhitting and outpitching them right now), but Arizona has the potential to get better. Keeping that in mind, as well as the fact that Nomar Garciaparra and J.D. Drew will likely spend significant time on the disabled list this season for L.A., and the Diamondbacks should continue to lead the division throughout.
The Red Sox, Rangers and Mets are the three teams poised to fall out of their present frontrunning spots.
Boston’s lineup was the premier one in baseball the past two seasons. This season, the Red Sox are seventh in baseball with 265 runs scored. They’re trailing AL East contenders Toronto and New York in that department. The Red Sox currently are 13th in team ERA at 4.47, five spots below the Yankees. Boston’s rotation isn’t that good (4.78 ERA), and Jonathan Papelbon is about the only saving grace in the bullpen. Manny Ramirez has finally broken out of his early-season slump, but there are still significant weak spots in the lineup. Jason Varitek is only hitting .232, and Alex Gonzalez is hitting .227 (with a staggering .295 OBP). David Ortiz is hitting homers, but not for the same average or OPS as he has in seasons past (he’s at .270 and .915, respectively, in 2006). Coco Crisp was supposed to be the answer in center field, but he’s played just six games thus far. The Sox have been pleasantly surprised by Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell and Mark Loretta, and they should wind up closer to the top of the league in runs scored before everything’s said and done.
However, Boston’s pitching figures to continue to struggle. Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling have been good thus far, with Beckett putting up a 7-1 record and a 3.80 ERA, while Schilling has managed an 8-2 record and a 3.93 ERA. The rest of the rotation has been unstable. The Red Sox have five guys in the bullpen that they have been relying on, and only two of them are sure things. The Yankees aren’t much better in the pen, but they are pitching and hitting better so far. The Yankees will likely catch up to Boston and overtake their rival.
The Rangers have a surprising three-game lead over the A’s, but they’re only 26-24, and the other three teams in their division should make up ground. The pitching in Texas isn’t very good, as the Rangers are 18th in baseball with a 4.81 ERA. Both the Mariners and A’s are pitching better than Texas. The Rangers are leading the AL West because they’re outhitting the A’s, Mariners and Angels by a significant margin.
Texas is 9th in the league in runs scored with 258. On the other hand, Seattle is 20th with 234 runs, Oakland is 23rd (223) and the Angels are 25th (221). What’s surprising is that Texas isn’t hitting home runs at its typical pace. Kevin Mench leads the team with 10. Mark Teixeira only has five and is hitting just .284. Michael Young is hitting .311, but can improve on that. Phil Nevin has nine homers, as does Brad Wilkerson. Neither of them are hitting that well (.220 and .262, respectively). The lineup is going to be better, but it’s reasonable to assume the pitching will fall off.
The Texas rotation is running basically four deep at this point. Kevin Millwood is supposed to be the ace, but he’s putting up a 4.88 ERA with a 5-3 record. Vicente Padilla, Kameron Loe and John Koronka are all posting remarkably similar numbers. Every starter is in the mid 4.00 ERA range, all are in the 1.35 WHIP range, and all have about 65 innings pitched under their belts. Akinori Otsuka hastaken the closer’s job with his 2.31 ERA and eight saves from Francisco Cordero. The Texas pitching isn’t at the level of Oakland’s or even Seattle’s. Though the Rangers will outhit both of those teams and the Angels easily, the pitching and the bullpen will come back to bite them. The A’s will likely turn it on around midseason and blow past the Rangers en route to a division title.
The Mets are one of the more talented teams in baseball and have a four-game lead over the Braves in the NL East. They’re even outpitching the Braves by a comfortable margin. The Mets are third in baseball with a 3.89 ERA, while the Braves are 10th with a 4.36 ERA. What’s surprising that the Braves are outhitting the potent Mets, scoring 267 runs compared to the Mets’ 246. But considering how much better the pitching has been, it bodes well for the Mets. So why are they in this category? Because the Braves are the Braves. They were trailing the Marlins at Memorial Day in the previous two seasons and came back to take the division. The Mets have gotten superb production out of the middle of the lineup, but the rest of the squad leaves something to be desired. Carlos Delgado has 15 homers and a .263 average, while David Wright is hitting .333 with eight homers. Carlos Beltran is hitting .277 but has an impressive 14 homers. Even Xavier Nady has gotten into the act with nine homers while batting .270. Cliff Floyd has been a disappointment with his .219 average, as has Jose Reyes with his .322 OBP and Kazuo Matsui with his .250 OBP. The fringe guys need to pick up the production for the Mets to maintain first place.
What the Mets won’t have to worry about is the front of their rotation. Tom Glavine is having a fantastic season with his 8-2 record and his 2.59 ERA. So is Pedro Martinez, 5-1 with a 2.79 ERA and 80 Ks. Behind Glavine and Martinez, things get shaky. Steve Trachsel has compiled his usual 4.99 ERA. Victor Zambrano may never pitch again, so the Mets went out and traded for Orlando Hernandez. Jose Lima and Jeremi Gonzalez shouldn’t be in a big-league rotation, but both have made three disastrous starts. Brian Bannister pitched well in his five starts, but he’s not a guy that the Mets can depend on yet. The bullpen has been solid, with Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez making names for themselves with ERAs below 2.40. Billy Wagner has saved 11 games, but has been shaky of late. He should settle down. Regardless, the Mets need to find starters and a quality leadoff hitter to hold off the Braves. If not, it seems like it will be another year that the Braves beat a more talented team for the NL East crown.